The Palestinian Authority’s pivot to China shows it has finally given up on the U.S.

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  June 23, 2023

Mahmoud Abbas’s recent trip to China indicates the Palestinian Authority has finally acknowledged the U.S. will never deliver. But, his defense of Uyghur oppression to win the favor of the Chinese government may have cost Palestinians more than he realizes.

Diplomacy often means finding a balance between an ideological or values-based position and a pragmatic one. This can mean, especially for leaders of less powerful bodies, walking a fine line and making very difficult decisions between standing for justice and standing for critical national interests. 

That was the sort of decision Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was faced with in China last week. As with so many difficult decisions and critical tests of leadership, Abbas failed this one and came away with little gain and much to answer for.

We shouldn’t minimize the difficulty of Abbas’ position. He had journeyed to China, the first Arab leader to visit Beijing since Chinese Premier Xi Jinping won what is certain to be the latest in a long line of electoral victories for him. He’s hoping to find a path for China to claim a role in the effort to realize Palestinian rights and achieve some sort of diplomatic resolution with Israel. 

It’s a quixotic effort, at best, yet it’s also one Abbas should have pursued a long time ago. For years, the feckless policies of the United States have deferred to Israeli desires and treated Palestinian rights as an afterthought at best. But it seems Abbas and his cronies in the Palestinian Authority have finally been forced to acknowledge that the United States is never going to be willing or able to deliver on its blatantly dishonest promises of a solution, two-state or otherwise, to Israel’s ongoing dispossession of Palestinian lands and denial of Palestinian rights. 

As such, there is some good in Abbas’ journey to China, though there will be little to show for it in the immediate foreseeable future. But, in an apparent effort to win the favor of the Chinese government, Abbas also defended and even justified Beijing’s massive program of oppression against the Uyghur and other Muslim communities in Xinjiang. That carried a higher price than Abbas probably realizes.

Turning to China, away from the U.S.

Abbas’ decision to turn to China may be viewed by some as an expression of Palestinian “frustration” with the United States. It certainly would be a well-founded reaction. One U.S. administration after another, regardless of political party or ideological affiliation, has enabled and strengthened Israel’s impunity, settlement expansion, denial of Palestinian rights, and draconian measures in its occupation. Every one, without exception, has accepted unquestioningly “Israel’s right to defend itself” whenever Israel rained down massive destruction in the West Bank and, especially, in Gaza while, simultaneously, treating every Palestinian attack—whether it was indiscriminate or directed at civilian targets, or it was armed resistance aimed at an occupying army, which is clearly legal under international law—as the worst crime ever committed. 

But the four American administrations in the 21st century have brought things to a new level. From George W. Bush treating Israel as its closest partner in its disastrous “Global War on Terror;” to Barack Obama’s limp political resolve with Israel which eventually led him to decide to pursue the Iran nuclear deal at the expense of any further effort in Palestine, a decision which finally killed the sham of a “peace process” that had persisted since 1993; to Donald Trump’s open threat against the Palestinians, backed up by such actions as moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the abortive “Deal of the Century,” and, finally, pushing Arab states to abandon the Palestinians completely with the so-called “Abraham Accords;” and finally to Joe Biden, for whom no Israeli crime is too much to swallow and to cover and run interference for. 

American behavior should have frustrated Abbas many years ago. But Abbas has only done it now, and it is not frustration that brought him to this decision—it was desperation. 

As bad as Trump was for Palestinians, the utter disregard for their very existence that the Biden administration has shown on every level seems to have finally splashed some cold water on the face of the PA leadership. One could pretend that Obama simply had bigger issue to attend to with Iran and that Trump was, well, Trump. But the utter lack of any action at all by Biden, despite Israel’s increasing violence in the West Bank, its shameless expressions of racism against Palestinians, and even its crimes against U.S. citizens in Palestine left no room for any self-delusion. 

Even as Abbas is trying to turn to China for help, and doing so at a time when tensions between Beijing and Washington are at a high point, the American response to Palestine is one of the coldest indifference. Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who have shown utter contempt for the value of Palestinian life, have completely ignored Palestinian overtures to China. They know that Israel will not accept Chinese mediation and that China is too eager to improve its diplomatic and trade relations with Israel to take political risks for the Palestinians. Where China’s diplomacy in the Gulf had some effect and thereby angered and embarrassed the United States, there is no path to an effective Chinese role in Palestine outside the parameters the U.S. and Israel have painstakingly constructed over the years. 

U.S. indifference to Abbas couldn’t have been clearer than it was when Blinken visited Beijing just after Abbas departed. Yet there was no hint that Blinken was even aware that Abbas had just been there. Of course, he knew, he just didn’t care. For Blinken and Biden, if the Palestinians want to look to another country for help, they are welcome to do so, as no country will be able to make any significant difference. As long as international bodies like the United Nations and its various legal bodies are kept at bay, the U.S. and Israel are comfortable. 

Beijing is clearly trying to assert its own role on the global stage in a way it has never done before. Earlier this year, it had offered to try to mediate some sort of agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. And, of course, China is fresh off its success, much to the chagrin of both Israel and, most particularly, the United States, in brokering a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Iran. 

And so Abbas has turned, in desperation, to China in the hope that they can make some progress where decades of begging at the U.S. table did not. But the chances for China to replicate its Gulf success in Palestine are extremely remote. So much so, that the U.S. and Israel didn’t even bother to weigh in on Abbas’ visit.

There are many reasons why diplomacy in Palestine and in the Gulf are very different. To begin with, the deal between KSA and Iran was mostly done by the time China came in. Iraq had done the heavy lifting of mediation, and it was left for a world power to give its imprimatur on the deal. Moreover, while very bitter, the breach between KSA and Iran occurred less than a decade ago, in the wake of the Saudi execution of Shi’ite cleric Nimr al Nimr and the subsequent sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. There were, of course, many other issues between the two rival states, that have simmered and sometimes boiled since the 1979 revolution in Iran. Many of those issues remain sore points, but the complexity, the century-long history, and the massive power imbalance in Palestine and Israel make this question completely different.

Add to all of that the fact that Israel, though certainly interested in nurturing its relationship with China, is not going to be inclined to accept any mediator in place of the United States, especially one that is not going to be particularly inclined to show Israel the massive favoritism that the U.S. does, and it is clear that there is little China can do in the short term to bring significant relief to the Palestinians. Moreover, China seeks to diminish tensions with the United States, and pressuring Israel in any way would counter that goal. 

Throwing the Uyghurs under the bus

The relatively minimal short-term potential for Chinese intervention on behalf of the Palestinian cause makes Abbas’ words regarding the Uyghur community in China all the more dismaying. At the end of Abbas’ visit, the two leaders issued a joint statement, which read in part, “Xinjiang-related issues are not human rights issues at all, but anti-violent terrorism, de-radicalization and anti-separatism. Palestine firmly opposes interference in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of Xinjiang-related issues.”

The words are straight-up Chinese talking points on the matter of China’s confinement of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. Their framing, which equates Muslims with radicalism and terrorism, is as Islamophobic as one can imagine. Yet these were the words Abbas endorsed.

The harm this does to the Palestinian cause will far outweigh any potential gains. Abbas might point, for example to the “strategic partnership” that the two leaders agreed to, but that will have precious little impact on the Palestinian economy, security, or diplomatic standing. There might be some expansion of Palestinian trade with China, but this will not make a major difference for most Palestinians or the Palestinian economy writ large. 

At best, it is possible that solidifying a relationship with China will help the Palestinians somewhere in the relatively distant future. But the price Abbas paid was far too high.

The Palestinian cause depends almost entirely on the issue of justice, on the concept of human rights, on the principle of equality for all. Aside from those matters of ethics, there is little reason to support the Palestinian cause, but those principles are powerful. Palestinian persistence is based on the idea that those principles are enough.

But Abbas abandoned those principles. As analyst Giorgio Cafiero put it,  “I’m sure that Uyghurs will be disappointed by this statement from Abbas, but the Palestinian leadership has to be pragmatic about how it engages with foreign governments. At the end of the day, China is very important to Abbas, and his priority, being on good terms with China and improving his relationship with Beijing, involves him saying things that many Uyghurs do not like.”

China may be important to Abbas, but its ability to offer much help is limited. China is important to the entire Arab world, and as a result, other Arab leaders generally make no comment on the plight of China’s beleaguered Muslims. Had Abbas done that, it would have been as sensible and pragmatic as Cafiero suggests. 

But Abbas went a step further. He defended and justified China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. It was, in the end, yet another example of Abbas, the PA, and the PLO playing its hand foolishly and paying far too high a price for very little. Abbas gave China what it wanted—an invitation to play a diplomatic role between the Palestinians and Israel, another partnership document in the Middle East region where China is trying to assert itself, and, best of all, a Palestinian and Muslim stamp of approval for China’s harsh repression of Muslims. 

In exchange, Abbas got a diplomatic pat on the back from China, potentially some small increase in trade, and some vague notion that China might at some point use the relatively small amount of leverage it has with Israel to aid the Palestinian cause. Surely, the customary silence on the Uyghur issue along with the other tidbits would have been more than sufficient for China to end Abbas’ visit with a positive feeling.

But Abbas, instead, gave away the one precious commodity—the moral high ground—Palestinians have, and, as he so often does, gave it away cheaply. This sort of bumbling diplomacy cannot be blamed on Israel’s colonial or apartheid measures. This is the incompetent leadership that Palestinians can only hope will come to an end soon, and which has been the hallmark of Mahmoud Abbas’ reign. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics